Pizzetti’s Great Greek Operas, I: Fedra

Fedra OD 11119-2

PIZZETTI: Fedra / Régine Crespin, soprano (Fedra); Gastone Limarilli, tenor (Ippolito); Dino Dondi, baritone (Teseo); Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, bass (Eurito d’Ilasco); Marta Rose, mezzo (Etra); Edda Vincenza, soprano (Theban Slave); Anna Maria Canali, mezzo (Gorgo); Paolo Montarsolo, bass (Phoenician Pirate); La Scala Orchestra & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / Opera Depot OD 11119-2 or available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: Milan, December 28, 1959)

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), a man with a permanent scowl on his face and knitted brows (I bet he must have been a laugh riot at parties!), is primarily known as a composer of orchestral music and a famous Requiem, but during his ling life he wrote no less than 16 completed operas and three unfinished ones dating from 1897, when he was only 17 years old, to 1964 when he was 84. Unfortunately, none of them are in the standard repertoire and in fact only this one, Fedra, has been commercially recorded in digital stereo sound, but that lone recording is substandard in both conducting and singing.

So why are his operas, and particularly those based on Greek drama which I consider to be the cream of the crop, so overlooked? Partly, I think, because he has a much higher reputation in instrumental music, which is softer in contour, less spiky harmonically, less edgy and less dramatic, and partly because his greatest operas are dramatic and somewhat edgy. There is also the sneaking suspicion that he was too infatuated by Wagner for an Italian composer but, as we shall see, although he clearly adored the German master, particularly in his early years, he was by no means a slavish disciple.

I first ran across an extended excerpt from this opera and this very performance on an Opera Depot CD devoted to soprano Régine Crespin. I let the CD play without looking at what aria or excerpt was coming up next, and after an excerpt from Parsifal this excerpt (“Figlia, di Pasifàe, Fedra vertiginosa”) came up. I thought I was listening to an excerpt from Parsifal that I had never heard before, but as the music progressed I realized that it was clearly no Wagner at all. But who, and what, was it? I soon found out by investigating the opera online.

Pizzetti in 1915

Pizzetti, c. 1915

Fedra was based on a 1912 play of the same name by the infamous Italian poet-playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio, who later in life became an ardent Fascist. In his play, d’Annunzio apparently wanted to reap some of the success of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. On the Opera Lively website, a member using the name Schigolch put up a ton of interesting posts on this opera in April and May of 2013. As he put it, d’Annunzio “made Phaedra an insatiable, wild woman, bordering on madness,” but there is more. He made her

A primeval being, unrest(ing), deluding herself. To indulge her passions she will confront everyone, including the gods themselves. Still traumatized by her kidnapping and how Theseus forced her into being his wife, she is suffering from “mania insonne,” and is emotionally separated from her fellow human beings.

This mania insonne will be the main Leitmotif. Fedra’s loneliness. A loneliness that places her opposite to Theseus, to the gods. This is her “hybris” (Greek word for excess, fir misguided pride). She is not seducing Hippolytus out of love, or lust. She is searching revenge on Theseus, Aphrodite and Artemis.

She is also a nocturnal  creature. Sleepless. A true messenger of Thanatos and Hecate. All (of) the opera in enveloped by an atmosphere of violent death.

Thus one can hear in this opera, as later in Ifigenie, how Pizzetti developed his music from a soft, Wagner-like prelude into a tangle of Greek passion filtered through the lens of Italian music. For all the Wagnerian elements in Fedra, there are also elements of Boito and some of the better ideas from Italian verismo. Pizzetti remained an Italian at heart and never strayed so far towards the Wagner ideal that he forgot his own cultural identity. Fedra had its premiere on March 20, 1915 at La Scala with a cast that included the powerful Ukrainian soprano Salomea Kruscelniski, who was also Puccini’s first Butterfly, as Fedra, American tenor Edward Johnson (singing under the name Eduardo di Giovanni) as Ippolito (Hippolytus) and the now-forgotten baritone Edmondo Grandini as Teseo (Theseus). Gino Marunicci conducted the performance. In the performance under review, the role of Ippolito was sung by Gastone Limarilli, a protégé of Mario del Monaco’s who studied with del Monaco’s teacher. This performance was his La Scala debut.

Crespin as Iphigenia

Crespin as Iphigenia

Like the best verismo operas, Fedra inhabits a febrile musical environment though it never uses the aria-duet-ensemble format favored by Mascagni or Puccini. Perhaps one reason for this, which is not widely known, is that despite his early piano lessons from his father Pizzetti was first and foremost interested in becoming a playwright. In fact, he wrote several plays, two of which were actually produced, before he finally decided to become a musician at the age of 15. In his later years—also not widely known—he also became a music critic and in fact wrote several books on the music of Italy and Greece. A close friend and colleague of d’Annunzio, he shared his penchant for dark, neoclassic themes. Sadly, he also followed d’Annunzio’s footsteps as an ardent supporter of Fascism and Mussolini, signing the Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals in 1925. This was a black mark on his character which he was somehow able to shake himself free of after World War II. Sadly, not all great artists are saints.

Gastone Limarilli

Gastone Limarilli

The music of Fedra remains basically tonal but, taking its cue from its complex, contradictory central character, it swirls in and out of dissonance, particularly in the orchestra. In this performance, one of only two that exist as broadcast transcriptions (the other is from 1954 with inferior sound and singers), conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, himself a composer, fully understands both the style of the music and psyche of the character, and he is aided by the resplendent soprano voice of Crespin who perhaps falls a bit short of projecting Fedra’s total madness but certainly manages to make her sound confused and vindictive. She is supported by two excellent singing actors, baritone Dino Dondi as Teseo (Theseus) and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, one of the most outstanding stage actors of his time (Pizzetti wrote his 1958 opera Assassasinio nella cattredale specifically for him), as Eurito (Eurytus). Gavazzeni had clearly rehearsed this cast down to the core of the characters’ conflicting motives and emotions, for he gets the best out of all of them, even the lovely-voiced but not always exciting mezzo Anna Maria Canali as Gorgo.

Dino Dondi as Teseo

Dino Dondi as Teseo

The only real drawback to Fedra is that the music is not quite as colorful and varied as in Pizzetti’s Greek operas which followed. The music is always interesting, but many of the vocal lines here tend to follow similar patterns. It’s the kind of score that works pretty well as an exclusively listening experience, but would clearly make a better impact if the opera were seen as well as heard. Luckily, as I mentioned in the above paragraph, the cast does a splendid job of inhabiting the characters as best they can and bringing them to life.

Fedra has apparently been one of the very few Pizzetti operas to be revived in the 21st century, but none of those performances seem to have been recorded and certainly not uploaded online for streaming. To be honest, however, I wonder if one could find a conductor and cast as committed to this searing musical drama as the one heard here. Nowadays it seems that we have opera singers who can act up a storm on the stage but not with their voices, and in fact most of them have such vocal defects—wobbles, poor voice placement, defective phrasing—that I’m afraid that they would get in the way of a great performance. Yes, there are some great singers out there, often not famous ones, toiling in the smaller operatic venues and just looking for a break, but sadly the ones with the high-powered agents either never had much of a voice or blew it out after five years or less of heavy singing.

Although I had a few caveats (noted above” regarding Fedra, it was a very innovative opera for its time and place, and I strongly urge you to listen to it. My upload on the Internet Archive is considerably better than the one on YouTube which was its source, since I deleted dozens of drop-outs in the sound and cleaned it up to some degree.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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